The Fake True Story

I was watching the first two episodes of season 11 of American Horror Story the other night because:

a. I needed an escape

b. It takes place in gay NYC in 1981, and 

c. I figured, how much worse could they make the impending doom of that time than it already was?  

Do I really want to know the answer?

Plus, one thing I can always count on this show and Ryan Murphy for is a few cheap thrills.   

And let’s face it, these days nothing is cheap and little, if anything, feels thrilling.

Well hell if I can’t say American Horror Story: NYC and Ryan didn’t deliver every cheap, thrilling, tawdry, salacious and ridiculously familiar tidbit with a twist that I could imagine, and then some.

But the problem is, it also made me think.

LOL What???

In an age of alternative facts is it okay to simply mix real events and fictionalized nonsense to the point where even I, an overly analytical gay guy who lived through those times, can barely tell the difference between fact and fiction? 

Or, say it isn’t so, is that actually the point???

AHS: NYC is the latest in a whole series of sensationalized TV and movie fact-tion that to varying degrees feasts on real people, real events and even numerous real names and images.  

They then swallow them whole and spit them out into a based on a true story but not really dramatization of events and eras that definitely existed but, well, in not exactly the way we’re telling it.

What is real???

Netflix’s recent humorless (note: and in my mind heartless) feature Blonde, an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ novelistic approach to the barely fictionalized life of Marilyn Monroe (note: real name used) instantly comes to mind.  As does the retelling of one view of Princess Diana’s life in last year’s Spencer, not to mention the singular tragedy porn take of director Pablo Larrain’s telling of the brief post-assassination period of Jacqueline Kennedy’s life in 2016’s Jackie.

Oh for god’s sake

This approach is not limited to the real lives of women, though those stories often prove irresistible fodder since we in the public have loved to fetishize females as somewhat tragic figures who never seem to get either the credit or the love that they deserve.  

Full confession:  I’m as guilty as any on this score.  Me, a guy from the boroughs, spent my teens, twenties and some years beyond feeling so badly for the very young, very from the boroughs and very inexperienced at love Fanny Brice/ Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl.   

Who… me?

I mean, she marries the handsome, worldly gambler Nick Arnstein because she so purely and desperately loves him and, despite their differences, knows she can make it work as she does everything else on stage.  Until she is forced to finally realize the hard way that mere love is not enough to make a relationship work.

It’s compelling to watch versions of the naïve, odd-looking, inexperienced kid from the cheap seats and the handsome, high-living lothario with a heart of gold who falls in love with her that we’ve all heard and read about, right?  Except, well, it’s all kind of made up.

Does Lea know?

It was only with this new 2022 Broadway iteration of Funny Girl that even I, Mr. Show Biz, found out the real Fanny Brice was married and divorced from her first husband prior to ever meeting Nick-y Arnstein, her second one. Not only that, but she already knew he was an unapologetic racketeer into all kinds of illegal stuff long before she married him and even well after.

But, I mean, how romantic is that story? (Note: I, for one, find it wildly compelling but that is yet another story).  

There has been a tradition of plundering through people’s lives in hopes of making some creative and commercial sense of their existences.  You clean up a little here, romanticize a little there, condense the timelines when convenient and change the names to protect against any one who can sue you.

Except Diana: The Musical… I have no idea what that is

No one really cares that Fanny wasn’t a virgin and that she brazenly married a racketeer if it’ll ruin a better story and make them not appear…sweeter.  Just like audiences don’t really want to know that in Gypsy the real life stage mother from hell, the iconic Rose, also had female lovers, one of whom she shot and killed after she dared to make a pass at her daughter Gypsy.

It’s one thing to tidy up specific people’s lives but it’s quite another to pick and choose from many, many lives you are appropriating, not to mention in what ways you are doing it.  But well, is it?  

The Law and Order franchises have made ripped from the headlines roman a clef a true television art since 1990 and lives on to this day.  (Note: Do not say ONE BAD WORD ABOUT MARISKA!).   And there is hardly a decade of history in the last 250 years that has not been pilfered for reinvented real-life tales, tall or otherwise.

WORK!

This is all a lot to consider (or not) while watching the beginning of AIDS, the murderous virus of homophobia, the leather cruising, the excessive drug use and the pilfering of fact and fiction as the subculture of gaydom before it was mainstreamed and/or talked about as portrayed in AHS: NYC.

It’s 1981 and we’re given a bit from the much criticized movie Cruising (1980) when a closeted gay detective played by Looking’s Russell Stovey examines what remains of the body of a handsome, fictionalized, leather-clad airline pilot murdered by the docks.  

But the detective is living with an angry, middle-aged out gay journalist, played by renowned out gay director-actor Joe Mantello, a composite of many but sort of a roman a clef of a real-life but much younger out gay journalist at the time, Michaelangelo Signorelli,  who became famous for outing famous closeted gays in the late eighties for not doing more to lead the fight against AIDS.

Joe giving us full Ryan Murphy lighting

So far, so good and  a smart mix of fact and fiction – kind of.

But then it gets kind of murky when we’re introduced to several requisite gay killers, one of whom is stalking our sweet, young, looking-for-love but not necessarily for sex, hero Adam, causing his best friend to go missing and Adam to become desperate.

A series of clues lead him to a bathhouse where he stumbles upon a famous photographer of provocatively naked, rough-looking gay males, but someone who also likes to capture images of flowers.  He should really be called Robert Mapplethorpe but isn’t because this isn’t a Fanny Brice-type biopic.

Not now Lea!!

However, it sort of is because the Mapplethorpe type has a rich boyfriend/manager/art patron named Sam, portrayed by Zachary Quinto, as a sleazy, sadist who is a little older and who is clearly based on Mapplethorpe’s real life lover/patron, Sam Wagstaff.  

By all accounts, the real Sam was a kind man who loved Mapplethorpe, bought him a building to finance and create his art, and believed in his work when almost no one else did.   Nevertheless, his AHS version likes drugging young men, locking them in cages against their will and doing god knows what to them before they meet some looming awful demise.  At least by the end of episode two.

There’s also a lot more.  

Ryan? Excess? I don’t believe it

The obviously well-educated ex-military gay psychopath who, with some help, drugs and kidnaps men at gay bars, and then tortures and/or kills them by injecting needles under their fingernails.  He and the crimes in the opening are sort of but not exactly based on New York’s notorious real life Last Call Killer as well as some of the murders portrayed in Cruising.

Not to mention the chanteuse at the gay bathhouse played by Patti Lupone, who so far has no dialogue but sings two songs great.  The problem is one of them is the haunting Oscar-nominated tune I Am Calling You, from the 1987 film, Bagdad Cafe, and she’s singing it in 1981 to a group of gay men, many of whom are likely to be dead by the time the real version of this song was first written and recorded six years later. 

On the other hand, does this matter when you get to see Patti in a Cleopatra/Cher/Victor/Victoria type headpiece, doing an homage to the world’s most well-known, real life gay bathhouse singer, the young Bette Midler of the early 1970s? 

No, it definitely does not

Not to anyone else but me, it seems.  

AHS:NYC and the like may not be historically accurate but they don’t have to be.  They are real enough, real-ish, which is fine as long as they are believable enough to be moneymaking and/or entertaining.

To use the present vernacular, they provide us infinitely more digestible alternative facts than our actual history.

And then some.

The lovely Kellyanne Conway first coined the oxymoron alternative facts in early 2017 on NBC’s Meet the Press in an effort to defend, or at least massage, the Trump administration’s lies about the number of people at his inauguration.

‘member her?

Days before, at his very first appearance as White House press secretary, Sean “Spicey” Spicer bellowed to a group of disbelieving reporters that President Trump had the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – PERIOD…!

That easily provable lie and blatantly improvable alternative fact quickly became an embarrassing international meme and butt of many a Saturday Night Live gag.

Some of Kate’s best work

Numerous comparative aerial photos, as well as final Washington, D.C. Metro figures for that day became irrefutable truths that Trump didn’t have anywhere near the attendance they claimed.  In fact, the first inauguration of Barack Obama more than doubled the real Trump numbers, which Spicer had already exaggerated by about 20-25%.

It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, more of an embarrassing mess that would ultimately be cleaned up in the history books by real facts, not alternative ones.

And look where we are now.

George Michael & Lynn Mabry – “I’m Calling You”

I’m Going to Dreamland

** Minor Spoilers of Netflix’s Hollywood ahead **

I don’t know about anyone else but for the last few months I’ve been living in dreamland.

This is a good place to be for about 50% of the time, given the realities of a worldwide pandemic.  Which doesn’t change the fact that for the other half of the time it’s been, let’s face it, kind of nightmarish.

Yeeps

Of course, nightmares are also dreams, just ones that bring out strong feelings of fear, terror, distress or anxiety.  At least, that’s the dictionary definition.

Though most of us don’t think of dreams or dreamlands quite that way.

We Americans especially like our dreams.  We like them so much we even once upon a time coined the aspirational phrase, The American Dream and had ourselves believing it for more than several generations.

In 1950, anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker took this idea one step further by famously naming Hollywood The Dream Factory.  In that seminal book, she masterfully dissected the push and pull between art and commerce in a culture and industry that has never done particularly well at balancing both.

Still, we soldier on and attempt to make sense of things, don’t we?  In much the same way we try to understand how a wonderful dream could just as easily become an unendurable, soul-crushing nightmare.

Certainly anyone who has lived in Hollywood for any length of time could wax poetic on both (Note: Depressingly so, for at least 50% of the time).  As a Hollywood resident myself for close to four decades, well, don’t get me started and don’t even ask where I would start….

It was with this understanding that I approached Netflix’s new Ryan Murphy miniseries Hollywood.   That is because, well, there is no other way to approach it.

Let Miss Patti take you for a ride

Hollywood is a perfectly flawed, dreamy, nightmarish and confoundingly implausible representation of the American, well, dream, told through the lens of moviemaking in the 1940s.

It’s fabulously beautiful in both sets and human beings, the latter of whom seem almost inhuman, especially the men.  But that’s the point, isn’t it?  When you can’t get beauty in real life Hollywood can always, to some degree, provide it.

How is this allowed?

It is also fabulously absurd in a fairly satisfying way as it attempts to bridge the gap of facts and fantasy by using the lives of both real life Hollywood people and make believe characters we might have enjoyed them encountering in order to address the sins and Pyrrhic victories of our collective pasts.

I, for one, don’t mind seeing a shy, soon-to be-famous Rock Hudson falling in love with a talented and very hot Black male screenwriter.  Not to mention, it’s pretty thrilling to experience the smart mouthy woman married to an obnoxious, know-it-all studio chief get the chance to choose what movies she thinks should get made when her husband becomes unceremoniously, um, indisposed.   Most especially, who wouldn’t enjoy seeing Eleanor Roosevelt making a convincing case for the first Black female star of a mainstream Hollywood movie to a mini-board room of power brokers and somehow managing to change history?

Too much, too silly, too ridiculous, too many plot holes?  I don’t think so.  And yes, of course, there are and it is.

Like most Ryan Murphy shows this is the point, the conceit, the infuriating flaw and the watchable/unwatchable challenge we’re up against.  We dealt with it to good and bad effect in every season of FX’s American Horror Story, raged at it all during the first season of his continuing Netflix series The Politician, admired the tight balancing act in the Emmy award-winning The Assassination of Gianni Versace and marveled at the sheer strangeness of it in his first bona fide big hit TV show, Nip/Tuck.

Not to mention his most delicious camp delicacy #mamacita4Ever

The one thing you can say about Mr. Murphy’s work is that it’s seldom drab and dull.  As a fellow gay man of a certain age, I’ve personally dubbed him The Great Pasticher.  Take any one of his series and you’ll find multiple homages to scenes from famous movies and TV shows, history, current events and pop culture in general all twisted in whatever fashion HE deems fit in order to tell a story.

It’s a love it or hate it approach to art but it’s almost never boring.  I’d rather deal with a zillion plot holes than be bored to tears and on this score, nothing he does, even the trashiest of the campiest, ever totally disappoints.

Boring is not in his vocabulary

One of the primary conceits of Hollywood is the centerpiece location of the Golden Tip service station (Note:  Oh yes, he did come up with that name), where men, women and presumably anyone in between can hire one of many hunky hot male attendants for sexual favors and get their every tank imaginable filled to dizzying effects.

All you have to do is drive up to the gas pump, look into the attendant’s eyes and utter the magic phrase:

I WANT TO GO TO DREAMLAND.

Take me away

And then, yeah, it’s just that damn easy.  In fact, far, far simpler than finding the balance in real life and, well, who wouldn’t like that???

Of course, this fictional filling hole is not made up out of thin air but rather a roman à clef version of a gas station in the real 1940s Hollywood famously run by the late Scotty Bowers. 

If you’re a gay guy of, once again, a certain age like myself and Mr. Murphy and haven’t heard of Scotty at this point, well, that’s impossible.  But for the rest of you, check out his 2012 memoir, Full Service, about the business in question and you’ll see Hollywood (the miniseries, at least) strays only far enough away from the facts to make its overall point.  You might also want to check out the 2017 documentary of his life, Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood and ask yourself if, at the end of the day, you don’t find everything he says and has claimed, well, mostly true

This is the consistent aspirational nature of much of Mr. Murphy’s work.  That would be a what if fantasy correcting the past for any of us who have been or ever felt marginalized. (Note: This of course, is pretty much everybody as far as real-life Hollywood is concerned).

It’s not always an accurate or totally buyable portrayal but, somehow, if you squint, he often makes it seem possible and, strangely, beautiful.  It’s a different kind of dream factory, to be sure, but one that gives us a brief respite from the Nightmare (Note: Pick One) we’re currently living through quite nicely.

Netflix Hollywood Trailer Music